2003 Records To Die For Page 6

David Sokol

NRBQ: Peek-a-Boo: The Best of NRBQ, 1969-1989
Rhino R2 70770 (2 CDs). 1990. Terry Adams, Joey Spampinato, others, prods.; Bill Inglot, CD prod.; various engs. AAD? TT: 107:26
The world's best club band has been thrilling crowds for more than three decades with its quirky but wonderfully tuneful blend of rock, country, r&b, you name it. Like the Beatles, NRBQ comes across as more than its individual parts. The foursome's lineup was stable throughout most of the time-frame covered here, so it's a blast to compare keyboardist Terry Adams' elegant songs with those of bassist Joey Spampinato and guitarist Al Anderson (who left in the 1990s and has become one of Nashville's most hit-worthy songwriters). While Q songs on this collection have been recorded with class by Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and even Charlie Robison, the band's own albums have never been particularly well received. Honestly, now, how many do you own? Peek-a-Boo is the place to start.

SHAVER: Tramp on Your Street
Zoo/Praxis 72445-11063-2 (CD). 1993. R.S. Field, prod., mix; Scott Baggett, mix. AAD? TT: 48:22
My all-time favorite alt-country album has become even more poignant in the past few years with the deaths of two of its principals, Waylon Jennings and Eddy Shaver. Eddy's dad, gray-haired honky-tonk hero Billy Joe, continues to soldier on, and he's never resonated more soundly than on this uplifting, spiritually rich collection. With his crack band, this native of Corsicana, Texas rocks one minute, and in the next, he'll swing or make you cry. No wonder his songs have been covered by everyone from Jennings and John Anderson to Patty Loveless, who reworked Tramp highlight "When the Fallen Angels Fly" and made it the title song of her best album, back in 1994. And when Billy Joe sings "Live Forever," the irony is heartbreaking.

David Patrick Stearns

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto
MOZART: Violin Concerto 5, K.219, "Turkish"

Leonid Kogan, violin; André Vandernoot, Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire
Testament SBT 1228 (mono CD). 1957/2002. Norbert Gamsohn, prod.; Paul Vavasseur, eng. AAD? TT: 73:07

The Testament label has long delved deep into the EMI vaults, but in 2002 they unearthed performances of particular historic and artistic importance, including the first CD releases of pianist Germaine Thyssens-Valentin, and long-unavailable recordings by conductor Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht. The single most notable disc, however, is this previously unreleased 1957 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Leonid Kogan. His radiant tone and relatively demure manner was somewhat overshadowed by a more heroic fellow Russian, David Oistrakh. But only on hearing Kogan's interpretation does one realize what a respectful distance other violinists maintain from this great score. Both Kogan and conductor André Vandernoot perform it as if its many emotional shades are precisely what they were personally feeling that day. That's in addition to the profoundly graceful phrasing and aristocratic refusal to oversell any aspect of the music, which were Kogan's hallmarks in all repertoire. There are other Kogan recordings of the Beethoven concerto, but this one has a uniquely appealing combination of clean, focused mono sound and an emotionally confiding performance.

SAARIAHO: L'Aile du songe, Lasconisme de l'aile
Camilla Hoitenga, flute; Amin Maalouf, narrator; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Naïve M0 782154 (CD). 2002. Risto Raty, prod.; Jukka Heinonen, Timo Rostela, Anna-Kaisa Nissinen, engs. DDD? TT: 60:23

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is creating a sensation in city after city with performances of her opera L'amour de loin, which might be described as Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande a century later—with an electronic element. A recording of that work, however, has been slow in coming, as the composer awaits the ideal cast and further development of surround-sound recording technology. In the meantime, there's her flute concerto, L'Aile du songe, completed in 2001. Already on disc, its virtues are similar to those of the opera. The ethereal harmonies are perfectly content not to telegraph their ultimate destination, or even what lies in the next minute. It's more dreamy and buoyant than the holy minimalist school of Arvo Pärt, and is full of such purposefully manic but enigmatic interactions between the solo flute and individual instruments of the orchestra that the concerto seems to arise from a parallel musical universe. It's a spacious universe that allows plenty of leeway for the listener's emotional reactions. I doubt that there is another flute concerto more substantial, poetic, and up-to-the-minute, or with such a textbook succession of modern flute-playing techniques. Much of the rest of the disc is devoted to Saariaho's distinctive style of poem settings: not sung, but read to an electronic backdrop.

Chip Stern

HOWARD ROBERTS: Antelope Freeway
Howard Roberts, electric & acoustic guitars; Bobby Bruce, violin; Mike Deasy, electric guitar; Pete Robinson, Larry Knechtel, Mike Wofford, keyboards; Brian Garofalo, Max Bennett, Fender bass; Bob Morin, John Guerin, drums
Impulse! AS-9207 (LP). 1971. Bill Szymczyk, prod., eng.; Ed Michel, prod. AAA. TT: 41:10

From the earliest days of electronic gimmickry and 16-track, 2" recording comes this fusion curiosity, replete with all sorts of quaint psychedelic touches that were probably intended to garner radio airplay in some better world than this. As I recall, the reviewer in Down Beat burned poor Howard Roberts at the stake. A pity, because this fun recording has all sorts of great blues-inflected jazz-guitar showcases, humorous tangents, and audiophile sound effects to recommend it—assuming your tastes run to concluding an acoustic guitar transition with a stereo-panned motorcycle zooming through your living room. While it's something of a stretch, at many points Antelope Freeway suggests Edgard Varèse's use of processed tape effects and found sounds to create a spiky aural collage. A closer antecedent is the Firesign Theatre, whose influence is self-evident in "Five Gallons of Astral Flash Could Keep You Up for Thirteen Weeks," a hilarious sendup of late-night journeys down the radio dial. None of this would mean a damn if it weren't for a dynamic Record Plant multitrack recording, a hard-grooving Bitches Brew-lite rhythm section, and Roberts' devoutly funky phrasing on such virtuoso workouts as "Sixteen Track Firemen" and "Roadwork"—or, in a luminously lyrical mood, on the Echoplexed harmonic balladry of "Dark Ominous Clouds" and "Santa Clara River Bottom."

EDGARD VARÈSE: The Varèse Record
Ionisation, Density 21.5, Interpolations from Déserts, Octandre, Intégrales

Frederic Waldman, Juilliard Percussion Orchestra, New York Wind Ensemble; René Le Roy, flute
Finnadar SR9018 (1977 mono LP), EMS401 (1950 mono LP). Edgard Varèse, Jack Skurnick, orig. prods.; Robert E. Blake, orig. eng.; Ilhan Mimaroglu, compilation prod.; George Piros, mastering. AAA. TT: 36:53

These compositions by Edgard Varèse, keepsakes of tomorrow originally conceived way back in the 1920s and '30s, offered the aspiring young composer Frank Zappa a sense of life-affirming danger and mystery amid the suffocating cultural conformity of his 1950s upbringing. Having gotten religion from Stereophile's own Sam Tellig regarding the sonic joys of classic mono recordings, I was thrilled to uncover this 1977 LP compendium of the original 1950 EMS release, recorded under the composer's supervision, and let me tell you, the sound couldn't possibly be more vivid or more terrifyingly alive. There's a curiously eastern ambiance to Varèse's haunting melodic visions of solo flute on Density 21.5, an effect he expands on in the gripping chamber voicings of Octandre, where his mastery of the overtone series is such that he makes acoustic woodwinds suggest analog synthesizers. Likewise, on his famous percussion work, Ionisation, Varèse's layered, chanting polyrhythms achieve a perfect balance between tribal communalism and modernist defraction. The previously unreleased recording of Interpolations is a jarring hard-left, hard-right, no-center-fill stereo collage of "organized sounds" recorded on magnetic tape in Paris in 1954. The work anticipates a host of musical milestones we now accept as commonplace—everything from techno and industrial to turntable back-spinning and radical hip-hop sampling.

Zan Stewart

ART BLAKEY: At the Café Bohemia, Vols.1 & 2
Art Blakey, drums; Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor sax; Horace Silver, piano; Doug Watkins, bass
Blue Note 5 32148 4 (CD). 1955/. Alfred Lion, orig. prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Michael Cuscuna, reissue prod. AAD. TT: 2:10:11

So what if these recordings are less than sonically ideal, from a tad too much stereo separation to Horace Silver's out-of-tune piano? There's so much ageless music and atmosphere—on one intro, Art Blakey tells the listeners to "Come on in and wail"—that you just can't miss. This music, heralding the burgeoning hard-bop genre, was recorded in a single evening (November 23, 1955) at a great Manhattan jazz joint, and folks, this joint was jumpin'. Riotously fast numbers like "Minor's Holiday," emotive ballads like "Yesterdays" and "Alone Together," and blues-rich cookers like "Soft Winds" and "Avila and Tequila" are all lit up by Mobley's buoyant sound and fluent, hip ideas, Kenny Dorham's like-minded crackle and zip, Silver's inherent blues-funk, Doug Watkins' agreeable thump, and Blakey's delicious bashing. Like the man said, come on in and wail.

GEORGIE FAME: Poet in New York
Georgie Fame, vocals; Bob Malach, tenor sax; David Hazeltine, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Louis Hayes, drums
Go Jazz 6044 (CD). 2000. Ben Sidran, prod.; James Farber, eng. DDD. TT: 55:35

UK-born Georgie Fame is mostly known as a rock'n'roll/R&B guy who had pop hits in the 1960s and later toured with Van Morrison. But he's also a deep, informed jazz singer with a very open, plaintive tenor voice who is a master of vocalise—affixing words to jazz solos, usually those previously recorded. On this delicious underground treasure, Fame writes two of his own: the moving tribute to jazz prince Benny Golson, "Tuned In to You," in which tenorman Bob Malach plays as Georgie sings; and "Declaration of My Love," a ballad that tugs the heart. Elsewhere, Fame's words give life to telling Chet Baker solos on Tadd Dameron's "On a Misty Night" and "That's the Way it Goes," and he romps through Lester Young's "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid," regaling listeners with King Pleasure's original vocalise and some of his own lines, too. Hazeltine, Washington, Hayes, and Malach are dynamism personified. (XXIV-9)

John Swenson

RONNIE AND THE REX: Return of the Fabulous Poodle
Turns www.turns.net (CD). 2001. Tony De Meur, prod.; Mat Clark, Asa Bennett, Martin Adam, engs. DDD. TT:
Ronnie & the Rex, a bizarre and wonderful combination of roots rock, R&B, Brit-pop, and comedy, is one of the most in-demand party bands in London, with residencies at the King's Head in North London and the 100 Club in Soho. Led by former Fabulous Poodles leader Tony De Meur, aka Ronnie Golden, the Rex play crackling soul grooves with lyrics that make you bust a gut on tunes like "5 Minutes" (a delicious turn on "Midnight Hour"), "Let's Have Sex" ("I'll love you later," promises Golden), and the anthemic "Drinking at Home" ("I know it's only alcohol but I like it"). The cleverness extends to a terrific medley of the "Perry Mason Theme" and "Town Without Pity"; a cover of the Dr. John-Doc Pomus tune "The Night is a Hunter"; and the nicest version of "Yellow Ribbon" you're ever likely to hear. De Meur is a conceptual genius, and this recording wraps all his talents together in one nifty little package.

SCHWAGGERT: Schwaggert
Freedom FR1006 (CD). 1995. Big Kevin Lemoine, prod. ADD. TT: 41:07
Out of the blue of the western skies came Schwaggert, the apotheosis of the Austin rock sound in the go-go 1990s. Emerging from the ashes of the Neptunes and discovered by Joe Ely, Schwaggert was the best bar band in Austin for the first half of that decade. Pete Gordon on piano, Steve Watson on guitar, and Mike "Wid" Middleton on drums joined forces with Chris Miller and Matt Eskey to make this rock classic in one day at the legendary Continental Club. "Take a Little for Yourself," "You Ain't Nothing But Trouble," and "I Didn't Think About That" are three of the greatest rock songs ever written. Ask Watson—he still plays 'em in New Orleans' favorite roots-rock band, $1000 Car.

Sam Tellig

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique
With: Overture: Béatrice et Bénédict

LSO Live LSO0007 (CD). 2001. James Mallinson, prod.; Tony Faulkner, eng. DDD. TT: 65:19
Sir Colin Davis has long been associated with Berlioz, and first recorded the Symphonie Fantastique with the London Symphony for Philips in 1963. Nearly four decades separate that performance from this September 2000 reading, recorded in concert at London's Barbican Center. It's fascinating to compare the two. Truly talented conductors almost always improve with age, and Sir Colin, born in 1927, is no exception. (Good thing conductors tend to live long!) What he draws from the orchestra on this new recording are remarkable nuance of phrasing and exceptional playing. It's not only the climaxes and the bombast (I love bombast!) that thrill—the quieter moments do, too. (The LSO is a tidier ensemble today than it was 40 years ago.) There are so many fine moments here—especially in Un bal, where the music shifts from dreamy to glittering to garish; and in Scène aux champs, where two shepherds (English horn and oboe) engage in a melancholy duet. I treasure John Eliot Gardiner's 1991 performance, with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique playing period instruments. But my first choice has to be this new recording by Sir Colin Davis. If I were a classical music reviewer, I might call it "indispensable." You might want to wait to see if this recording is among the first batch of SACDs that appear on LSO Live. By the way, Berlioz is John Atkinson's favorite composer—first in his heart, even over Elgar. [Snort!—JA.]

ELGAR: Symphony 1
Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live LSO0017 (CD). 2002. James Mallinson, prod.; Tony Faulkner, eng. DDD. TT: 54:48

This performance was recorded in concert at the Barbican Center, London, in October 2001. Three years earlier, as the liner notes tell us, conductor Sir Colin Davis re-studied the composer's music "in great depth" for an Elgar Festival with the same orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra. The effort shows, as does the orchestra's close connection with the composer (Elgar was Principal Conductor from 1911 until shortly before his death in 1934). Elgar's music, like Mahler's, must be extraordinarily difficult to conduct. Symphony 1 is so long, for one thing—it takes special talent to hold it together, to make the performance flow and build toward a climax. There are so many changes in tempo, phrasing, and dynamics—not to mention a dramatic key change from A-flat major to D minor in the first movement. This is an exhilarating performance superbly recorded, despite the difficult acoustics of the hall. I listened in rapture as the nobilimente theme of the first movement returned triumphantly in the fourth—the ethereal scoring for the strings, the trumpets in a blaze of glory. I recently had the opportunity to hear Davis conduct the symphony with the New York Philharmonic, a reading that was very close to this recording. There's something very special here—uplifting, powerful, and, dare one say it, heavenly. My wife, Marina, who had never heard the work before, was deeply moved. This recording is on LSO Live, the orchestra's own label. Some of the recordings are said to be forthcoming on SACD. Surely this should be one of the first.

David Vernier

MICHEL LEGRAND: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg): Original Soundtrack
Sony Classical France SM2K 62678 (2 CDs). 1964/1996. Jean-Michel Pou-Dubois, Claude Ermelin, Louis Perrin, engs. ADD. TT: 117:16
There's just something about the music from Jacques Demy's 1964 "jazz-opera" film. It features the screen presence of the then unknown Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo and the real voices of a couple of the then-popular Swingle Singers (including Christiane Legrand, sister of composer Michel), and ideally captures a uniquely French sensibility regarding love, romance, and tragedy. To fully appreciate this, you probably had to have been there in 1964, when the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes—or lucky enough to have caught the film at one of the few "art" theaters in the US that happened to show it. Although a single disc was briefly available in North America on Philips, Sony in France later issued this two-disc complete version, remixed and containing six bonus tracks.

SCHUMANN: The Songs of Robert Schumann, Vol.7
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano
Hyperion CDA33107 (CD). 2002. Mark Brown, prod.; Julian Millard, eng. DDD. TT: 77:34

What could be more satisfying than hearing two voices perfectly suited to the repertoire, totally in command of technique, confident in style, utterly communicative at every phrase, performing extraordinary music, accompanied by one of today's most sympathetic, masterful collaborators? Dorothea Röschmann is simply one of the world's finest singers, and Ian Bostridge proves an equal partner, whether in their several duets or in their shared solo contributions. The rarely heard duets are especially fine, but Röschmann's lovely solo singing in songs such as "Der Nussbaum" and "Lied der Braut" is more than worth the price of this CD.

Barry Willis

CESARIA EVORA: Cesaria Evora
Nonesuch 79379-2 (CD). 1995. Paulino Viera, prod., eng.; Christian Echaib, Didier Le Marchand, Bob Ludwig, engs. AAD? TT: 58:02
Burned out on Big Music production values? Cesaria Evora is the cure for what ails you. The Cape Verdean contralto brings her melancholy sweetness to songs of mystery, love, regret, advice, and hope, singing primarily in her native Kabuverdianu, a Portuguese-based Creole. Fans of Buena Vista Social Club will find the mood familiar, the music ideal for languid afternoons and long, balmy nights.

RCA Victor 62707-2 (CD). 1995. David Pack, Michael Greene, exec. prods.; Allen Sides, Barry Rudolph, engs. ADD? TT: 74:15
This version of the American musical treasure was a philanthropic project organized by the Grammy organization to benefit the NARAS Foundation, the Leonard Bernstein Education through the Arts Fund, and Nashville's Bernstein Center. The performances range from heartbreaking (Trisha Yearwood's "I Have a Love") to hilarious (Little Richard's sendup of "I Feel Pretty"). Natalie Cole, Sheila E., and Patti Labelle team up with a topnotch show band to give "America" the full gospel treatment, and a star-studded hip-hop crew reveals the eternal truth in "Gee, Officer Krupke." The unlikely pairing of Kenny Loggins and Wynonna works surprisingly well on "Tonight," and Chick Corea battles Steve Vai in "The Rumble." Aretha Franklin sings "Somewhere" like you've never heard it; the late Tejana star Selena shines on "A Boy Like That." This amazing compilation has it all: great variety, great recordings, great performances.